Online Tools: The Waaaave of the Future

The online tools session at ScienceOnline Together 2014. Photo: Russ Creech.
The online tools session at ScienceOnline Together 2014. Photo: Russ Creech.

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Eleanor Spicer Rice, a freelance science writer and co-founder of the science communication company Verdant Word. She is also co-founder of the science/art blog BuzzHootRoar (she’s Roar) and the author of Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants and Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants of New York City.

When my brother graduated from college, one of his commencement speakers, a distinguished professor, announced to us in a wizardly voice: “The Internet is the waaaave of the future.”

Boy, was that hilarious. Who did this grandpa think he was talking to? This was 2000. We were sitting at the apex of the dot-com bubble, streaming Napster in our dorm rooms, emailing instead of talking. We were asking Jeeves for help finding our best friends’ Geocities page.

For the next several months, we gleefully pronounced every extant commodity as the wave of the future.

“Thanks for calling me on your cellular telephone device. Especially considering cell phones are the waaaave of the future.”

“What are these delicious, fried, boneless chicken morsels?”

“Don’t you know? Chicken strips are the waaave of the future.”

Eleanor Spicer-Rice
Eleanor Spicer-Rice

All this to say that, standing in front of my “Online Tools” session at Science Online 2014 (tweeted as #sciotools and Storified here), I felt a pang of commiseration for my brother’s commencement speaker.

I know next to nothing about online tools. Yes, I have a scicomm blog, I regularly collaborate with clients electronically with my science writing business, and I use data management and sharing tools for the scientific research I sometimes help conduct. But the truth is, until this session I only used tools as they became necessary for me to use them. If you want to make an appointment with me, you will need to wait for me to pull out my giant calendar from my knapsack, and then you’ll probably need to lend me a pen. My online tool selection was driven by necessity, and my online tool use was driven by inertia.

Not anymore.

After this session, I am here to tell you that not only are online tools the waaaave of the future, they can be pure magic, simplifying and enriching our professional landscape. Here are some top tools for various uses that emerged from the session.

Organize it!

Most folks use Google Calendar (or Google Keep) to keep track of task lists, calendars and reminders, but Confluence emerged as an interesting tool to write business notes and move large datasets. Evernote had some devotees in the audience, who enjoyed its easy searchability and organization capacity.

Keeping Track of Time

The thought of visualizing how long it actually takes me to do a task depresses me. I am well aware of how much time I fritter away while I should be working. But to stay on task or appropriately bill for services, free applications like Toggle and Rescue Time can help. Rescue Time’s free version actually emails you a weekly report showing you how you spend your day to help you manage time properly. Yikes.

Maintaining and Tracking Data and Documents

With DEVONthink, you can dump all your data and documents into the program and it will organize and help you keep track of everything (but it’s not free). Evernote and Dropbox are also commonly used for data and document organization.

Weeding Information Overload

While trolling the internet for news can technically be considered “working” for many of us science writers, it’s also a huge time suck and can majorly decrease our productivity (which, if we’ve downloaded Rescue Time, will become graphically obvious to us). A few apps can help cut the fat of Web browsing. Feedly,, Pocket and Zite all consolidate news sources in one place. Pocket has the added benefit of saving your articles so you can read them offline later. Your own newspaper! Written for you!

Information Management

Juggling lots of projects, it can be tricky to keep track of references. Until this session, my reference maintenance system was a holdover from my days as a graduate student: I used RefWorks to keep track of my journal references. Thanks to this session, I understand a plethora of tools is available to manage my resources. Trello (free) helps keep track of article ideas (and is great for collaboration, as are Figshare and Jira); Zotero works in your web browser to manage information; Readcube and Kapost work great for managing papers and customizing workflow (but user beware: Kapost does not save information automatically!).

Be the Boss of Social Media

Several tools are available to help take your social media prowess to the next level. Buffer (free) and Hootsuite both let you manage and post to multiple social media accounts. Many people also found Klout and Tweetdeck helpful for managing their social media networks.

But the coolest Twitter tool brought up in the session was something called Social Bro, which lets you know who your influences are, the best (most influential) time to tweet, and gives you information like in which subject areas you are most influential and where your followers come from. It even tells you who’s unfollowed you!

Check out this great GoogleDoc compiled by Mary Todd Bergman to see how people who’ve used the social media management tools rate them. You can even add your two cents.

Tons more tools were discussed to help us ride the wave of the future, useful for stuff like recording sound, hiring freelancers, taking surveys, transcribing calls, and more. You can read about them all in the Storify. I can’t tell you all of them here. My Rescue Time won’t allow it.


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